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A Review of the Passion

Is it too violent? Sure, but so was crucifixion.

    This isn’t the first time Mel Gibson’s movies have been accused of excessive violence. He was criticized for the violence in Braveheart as limbs and heads were hacked off by Scots and Brits; also for The Patriot as British soldiers and American revolutionaries shot at each other; and then again in We Were Soldiers Once, and Young for graphically portraying the violence in Vietnam. I myself have been grateful for these movies’ willingness to be honest about how violent war is. And in a similar way I’m glad for a movie willing to suggest that crucifixion might hurt. Other movies about Jesus have so sanitized the cross it’s not clear why anyone would die on it. In this movie, it’s not clear how on earth Jesus lives through the scourging, the beatings, the carrying of the cross, in other words, all the pre-crucifixion torture. I for one am glad it’s more honest. I’m told that in a previous Jesus movie years ago they had the actor shave his armpits so no one would be offended by such an unseemly sight as body hair! This movie has no problem offending us by its violence. And that’s good—crucifixion was violent. This might be the genius of this movie—modern movies can display incredible things on film with makeup and special effects in a way that was never possible before. This I suspect is why so many people love the movie so much.

    The only problem is this—was the actual torture that violent? The Romans famously thought that someone could only survive 39 lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails; in the movie Jesus gets more than twice that number. I’ve been told by more than one health professional that an Olympic athlete couldn’t have survived one-third of that abuse, let alone still be able to carry his cross and talk. The recent scandal surrounding Vancouver hockey player Todd Bertuzzi’s assault on Colorado player Steve Moore is instructive—one punch from Bertuzzi and one tackle of Moore to the ice led to a fractured vertebrae and concussion—and that to a professional athlete skilled in taking punishment. Jesus is punched many hundreds of times in this film. Gibson may indeed have overdone it.

    His point was to be honest, but it’s also a religious point. Look at how much Jesus suffered for you and me. Look at how much God loves us to have his son be so brutally mistreated. I think this is the primary force of the movie—the graphic portrayal of the violence inflicted on Jesus is meant to move us to love God in return. Preachers often do the same thing on Good Friday, as we describe what happened to Jesus in such detail so as to move us, their hearers, to love God more. Gibson is simply better at it than most of us!

    Here’s the question to ask—does it work? Does seeing the extent of the violence indeed move us to love God more? Many reviewers, especially secular ones, have been repelled by the movie, and we can see why: Jesus is a bloody mess. It’s hard to watch the thing. The question is whether as Christians we think it’s good or helpful to show that to ourselves or to non-believers. Further, does it matter theologically how much Jesus suffered? Would his sacrifice for us have worked if he’d been quickly beheaded by a sword, as Paul was? Or does the extent of the torture do something extra? Perhaps more troubling, is it simply a sort of sick voyeurism that wishes to see this sort of torture in such detail? If it is—and the movie may have shown me as much—I for one may change my preaching practice when the lectionary directs me to the cross.

Is it a Catholic movie? Yes, deeply so, and that’s its greatest strength.

    Gibson famously practices a particular brand of ultra-conservative Catholicism that says mass in Latin and rejects Vatican II. This is a perfectly respectable position—not a few Catholics quibble mightily or minorly with recent church attempts to modernize. What’s fascinating is how deeply evangelicals have taken to this movie done by a stalwart Catholic. Traditionally Protestants and evangelicals have discouraged visual portrayals of Jesus. This is why Protestant crosses are empty and Catholic ones have a body on them—Catholics have been more into focusing on what Jesus looked like, in all the gory detail. Protestants have been worried that visually portraying Jesus could be idolatrous—a violation of the Second Commandment against graven images. But Protestant evangelical leaders and pundits have adored this movie and denounced any criticism of it. I suspect it’s gratifying to have a Hollywood star acknowledge orthodox Christianity. The true story of this movie may be how it changes the entertainment industry—if a religious film in subtitles can make hundreds of millions of dollars, you can be sure more will follow.

    Yet much of what’s most interesting about the movie is its most Catholic material. Catholic practices of meditating on specific events in Jesus’ passion, especially during Holy Week, deeply inform the film. The film’s dramatic portrayal of Jesus’ falling while carrying his cross is quite important in the “Stations of the Cross” prayers Catholics pray during Holy Week. In these prayers, Jesus’ traditional three falls are narrated (there are more in the film). The woman who wipes Jesus’ face during one fall is Veronica, a saint in Catholic tradition, who again in the stations of the cross comforts Jesus, and the image of his face miraculously remains on her shawl (producing his veron icon, his true image). That’s in the movie, not in the Bible, and it’s beautiful. The deep intimacy between Jesus and his mother is deeply Catholic and quite beautiful—remember when he falls and Mary runs to him, then it’s spliced with him falling as a boy and Mary running to him? I sobbed in that scene—deeply Catholic. Many other scenes are quite important in Catholic piety and art—the scourging is one on which Catholics often mediate as they pray the rosary. The scene where Jesus descends from the cross and lands in Mary’s lap is very important in traditional Catholic art, as Michelangelo’s Pieta demonstrates. If you notice while he’s on the cross, Jesus has his first two fingers extended and the others pulled back, a Catholic sign of blessing. (It’s how priests hold their fingers when they bless people; the pope’s fingers are always like that.)

    One of Gibson’s sources for this movie is a Catholic nun from Germany in the 18th century named Anne Catherine Emmerich. She is said to have had visions of the passion of Christ, among other scenes. This was not unusual among medieval Catholic men and women—many mystics had visions of events in Jesus’ life, and that’s where much of the material in the movie comes from. She is a fascinating figure in her own right—a medieval figure living in aggressively modern times in Germany under the imposed King of Westphalia Jerome Bonaparte, who closed her monastery. Did you notice how the soldiers all have names? Abenadar is the centurion, for example; Dismas and Gesmas are the two crucified thieves. Those come from Catholic sources like Emerich. The scene where Simon of Cyrene insists the soldiers stop mistreating Jesus or he won’t carry the cross any more is in Emmerich’s work. The scene where Jesus’ arm isn’t long enough for the nail to go into the nail hole on the cross and the men stretch his arm, dislocating his shoulder is also in Emmerich. Emmerich goes into great detail about each of the two embellishments I mentioned earlier—the movie’s focus on the wife of Pilate, Claudia, and on the scourging.

    For example, the moving scene where Claudia gives the towels to Mary and Mary Magdalene and they wipe up Jesus’ blood after the scourging is straight from Emmerich. Interestingly, Emmerich seems to have worried that some would take her meditations as historically accurate! The man who wrote down her visions also wrote this about them: “These meditations will probably rank high among many similar works which the contemplative love of Jesus has produced; but it is our duty here plainly to affirm that they have no pretensions whatever to be regarded as history. They are but intended to take one of the lowest places among those numerous representations of the Passion which have been given us by pious writers and artists, and to be considered at the very most as the Lenten devotions of a devout nun.” Emmerich insisted what she was saying was not based on some time-travel visit back to Jerusalem in 33 AD. Her visions were a sort of holy imagining of what happened to Jesus and were intended to make her readers love him more.

    As is clear thus far I have no qualm with using an 18th-century Catholic nun as an imaginative source for depicting the Passion. But it’s wrong to suggest, against Emmerich’s own will, that these reflections are all in the Bible or historically accurate. I suspect that the movie’s advertisers and supporters have done that because they want people like you and me, Bible-believing evangelical Protestants, to go see it. And to bring our friends. And we have, in droves, to the tune of several hundred million dollars. That’s fine—I’m all for religious art being rewarded like secular art; Lord knows trash has made twice that and not done the good this movie has and will. But I find it offensive when much of the marketing of the movie has insisted on its biblical accuracy when, in fact, much of what’s good and bad about the movie comes either from an 18th-century nun or from Mel Gibson’s own imagination.

    I would have preferred evangelical leaders in this country to say they’re surprised that a conservative Catholic would be the one to portray the Passion so movingly. We’re also impressed by the material added to the biblical story from Catholic piety and history. We’d like to learn more about that. So, if you’d like to see the best Hollywood can do in portraying the Passion of Jesus, based on the Bible but enriched by material from outside the Bible, then come. That would have been more honest, though it would have scared some Protestants away and made less money.

    This movie has its brilliant moments. I had low expectations based on critical reviews from religious sources I trust, yet I sobbed several times and emerged changed somehow. It also had material that made me want to pull my hair out, mostly in its refusal to depict the Jewish leaders differently. The most interesting stuff was in fact the stuff not in the Bible, though its marketers would have suggested otherwise. In all, it seems to me like a good sermon! It challenged me, made me think, moved me, made me mad, I didn’t agree with all of it; in fact, I strongly disagreed sometimes, but hey—if I can have that effect, even partially on a Sunday morning, then maybe I’ve done my job. So I suggest Mel has also done his.

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